New York isn’t thought of as an exceptionally Christian town. But as I sat in the Marcy Armory on Easter Sunday night live-tweeting NBC’s broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” you could have fooled me.
More than 1,000 audience members whooped, clapped and even wept as John Legend portrayed Jesus, Sara Bareilles played Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper took on the role of Herod in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s religious rock opera. Entertainment Weekly called it a “glorious glitter bomb,” Deadline said the performance was “just how Jesus would have wanted it,” and the New York Times even hailed it as “a conceptual and artistic triumph.” (See also The Washington Post’s review.)
But as I scrolled through social media this morning, it became stunningly clear that many across America’s heartland were not as celebratory as the adoring New York crowd in attendance. Some picked at ahistoric artistic flourishes in the script, while others dismissed the show as generally irreverent.
Jerry Dodson, a North Carolina resident, called it “a blasphemous piece of well-crafted trash” on Twitter and remarked that he was “watching TCM’s festival of reverent films instead.” With characteristic brashness, conservative columnist Rod Dreher tweeted, “The only thing worse than ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is ‘Godspell.’ Come at me.”
“Superstar” flopped when it debuted in Britain in 1970, and it was banned by the BBC for being sacrilegious. When it hit Broadway the next year, the musical was widely criticized by Jews and Christians — as well as by Webber himself. Americans today are arguably less sensitive to the affectations of art than they were five decades ago. But last night, many of the same critiques were, um, resurrected. It seems old criticisms die hard, especially when religion is involved.
For some Christians, the story is blasphemous from the beginning because of its premise. Webber wrote the show as a retelling of the life of Jesus from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ to the Roman authorities in the New Testament gospels. The way many Christians have told the story, however, paints Judas as the consummate villain, the epitome of evil with no redemptive value.
Webber traded this flat meme for a more nuanced — and perhaps human — version of Judas. The composer once explained: “ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was really not an irreligious piece, as has been so often suggested. In its own way and in its own time, it was simply a work attempting to ask a couple of questions, the chief of which was stated by Bob Dylan some years ago: ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?’ ”
In “Superstar,” Judas is a character bursting with inner turmoil. He is green with jealousy at Jesus’ popularity, sure, but he also seemingly wants to do good in the world. There is precedent for this portrayal in the Bible, as some will recall that Judas immediately regrets his betrayal, returns the blood money and commits suicide. But anything other than a heap of shame and a smaller supporting role for Judas is intolerable for some Christians.
In 1971, a Baptist minister griped to the New York Times that the show should be called “Judas Superstar.” And the criticism resurfaced last night, with another pastor on Twitter saying, “Clearly, when you write a full-length production where Judas has more lines than Jesus, your intention is not to be faithful to Christ.”
While many religious viewers were able to push past its premise, some squirmed at the show’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene. She is portrayed as one of Jesus’ disciples who, though she may not be sleeping with the teacher, seems to be in something of a romantic relationship with Jesus. Scholars have debated whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were more than friends, but most orthodox thinkers conclude that there is no evidence for such a suggestion. Most conservative Christians also reject the notion that Jesus was anything other than a single, celibate man.
Christians picketed “Superstar” at its opening night in the 1970s, fueled in part by anger over the show’s portrayal of Mary and Jesus’ relationship. And many last night were equally frustrated by this flourish. Patti Money, a Methodist pastor, commented, “I’m not conservative by any means, but I don’t appreciate the allusions to a romantic relationship or her being a prostitute.”
Religious viewers who were able to get past some of these artistic flourishes still found fault in the musical’s ending. “Superstar” concludes abruptly at the crucifixion and makes no allusion at all to Jesus’ resurrection. Many Christians see this as a critical component of the story, one that if removed alters the entire narrative. In fact, the Apostle Paul himself wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
It’s easy to understand why this exclusion angered so many Christians in the show’s early days. Some even speculated that Webber was subtly suggesting that the resurrection never occurred. The composer denied these allegations, telling the Christian Century in 1987:
Superstar never set out or intended to discuss anything at all like the resurrection. All it ever did was to declare itself to be a version of the last seven days of Jesus Christ. It never even remotely said it was going to move into that area, and to do so would have removed its dramatic purpose. Not to sound irreligious, but quite apart from its religious value, it is a wonderful story, and we wanted to deal primarily with the story’s dramatic rather than its theological side.
But even if you accept Webber’s explanation, the musical’s ending makes it at least a strange selection for an Easter Sunday special. That day on the church calendar marks the resurrection, not the crucifixion. It’s difficult to expect that a secular studio such as NBC would understand the importance of this detail, but it was not unnoticed by some religious viewers.
Last night’s performance was a subtle reminder that there are serious divides among Americans when it comes to important matters such as art, entertainment and religion. And these divides are driving far more in our country right now than just Nielsen ratings.
Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning religion writer and author of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — and How We Can Revive Them.”